AIM-54 Phoenix

The Phoenix missile was the only long-range air-to-air missile (AAM) to be in service in the United States and it was the first missile capable of multiple-launch against more than one target. The AIM-54 Phoenix is a radar-guided, long-range air-to-air missile, carried in clusters of up to six missiles on F-14 Tomcat fighters, which is the only aircraft capable of carrying the AIM-54 Phoenix.The AIM-54 was originally developed for the canceled F-111B, the naval variant of the joint USAF-USN F-111 fighter, and it was based on the Eagle project for the canceled F6D Missileer. The Phoenix was designed to defend the Carrier Battle Group against a variety of threats, including cruise missiles, and its range and loiter capability provided defense in depth. Despite the much-vaunted capabilities, the Phoenix was rarely used in combat, with only two confirmed launches and no confirmed targets destroyed in US Navy service. The AIM-54 Phoenix was retired from USN service on September 30, 2004. It remains in service with Iran.

AIM-54 Phoenix
Class Missile
Type Air to Air
Manufacturer Hughes Missile Systems Company
Origin United States of America
Country Name Origin Year
United States of America 1974
Country Name Operational Year Retirement Year
Iran (Persia) View
United States of America 1974 View
ManufacturerName Production From Production To Quantity
Hughes Missile Systems Company 1962 View
Raytheon Missile Systems 1962 View

Since 1951, the Navy faced the initial threat from the Tupolev Tu-4K 'Bull' carrying anti-ship missiles. Eventually, during the height of the Cold War, the threat would have actually expanded into regimental-size raids of Tu-16 Badger and Tu-22M Backfire bombers equipped with low-flying, long-range, high-speed, nuclear-armed cruise missiles and considerable Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) of various types.

The Navy would require a long-range, long-endurance interceptor aircraft to defend carrier battle groups against this threat. The proposed F6D Missileer was intended to fulfill this mission and oppose the attack far from the fleet it was defending. The weapon needed for interceptor aircraft, the Bendix AAM-N-10 Eagle, was to be an air-to-air missile of unprecedented range when compared to contemporary AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. It would work together with Westinghouse AN/APQ-81 radar. However, the Missileer project was cancelled in December 1960.

U.S. combat experience

The Gulf of Sidra incident (1981), in which American F-14s shot down 2 Libyan Su-22s, is sometimes thought to have involved AIM-54s. However, the engagement was conducted at short ranges using the AIM-9 Sidewinder. The other US F-14 fighter to fighter engagement, the Gulf of Sidra incident (1989), used AIM-7 Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles, but not the Phoenix.

On January 5, 1999, a pair of US F-14s fired two Phoenixes at Iraqi MiG-25s southeast of Baghdad. Both AIM-54s' rocket motors failed and neither missile hit its target.

On September 9, 1999 another US F-14 launched an AIM-54 at an Iraqi MiG-23 that was heading south into the no-fly zone from Al Taqaddum air base west of Baghdad. The missile missed, eventually going into the ground after the Iraqi fighter reversed course and fled north.

An AIM-54 Phoenix being attached to an F-14 wing pylon before the forward fins were installed (2003).

The AIM-54 Phoenix was retired from USN service on September 30, 2004. F-14 Tomcats were retired on September 22, 2006. They were replaced by shorter-range AIM-120 AMRAAMs, employed on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Both the F-14 Tomcat and AIM-54 Phoenix missile continue in the service of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, although the operational abilities of these aircraft and the missiles are questionable, since the US refused to supply spare parts and maintenance after the 1979 revolution, except for a brief period during the Iran-Contra Affair.

Despite the much-vaunted capabilities, the Phoenix was rarely used in combat, with only two confirmed launches and no confirmed targets destroyed in US Navy service, though a large number of kills were claimed by Iranian F-14s during the Iran–Iraq War. The USAF F-15 Eagle had responsibility for overland combat air patrol duties in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, primarily because of the onboard F-15 IFF capabilities. The Tomcat did not have the requisite IFF capability mandated by the JFACC to satisfy the rules of engagement to utilize the Phoenix capability at beyond visual range. The AIM-54 was not adopted by any foreign nation besides Iran, or any other US armed service, and was not used on any aircraft other than the F-14.

Iranian combat experience

There is very little information available regarding Iran's use of its 79 F-14A Tomcats (delivered prior to 1979) in most western outlets; the exception being a book released by Osprey Publishing titled "Iranian F-14 Tomcats in Combat" by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop. Most of the research contained in the book was based on pilot interviews. Reports vary on the use of the 285 missiles supplied to Iran, during the Iran–Iraq War, 1980–88.

According to Cooper, the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force was able to keep its F-14 fighters and AIM-54 missiles in regular use during the entire Iran–Iraq War, though periodic lack of spares grounded large parts of the fleet at times. At worst, during late 1987, the stock of AIM-54 missiles was at its lowest, with less than 50 operational missiles available. The missiles needed fresh thermal batteries that could only be purchased from the US. Iran found a clandestine buyer that supplied it with batteries—though those did cost up to US$10,000 each. Iran did receive spares and parts for both the F-14s and AIM-54s from various sources during the Iran–Iraq War, and has received more spares after the conflict. Iran started a heavy industrial program to build spares for the planes and missiles, and although there are claims that it no longer relies on outside sources to keep its F-14s and AIM-54s operational, there is evidence that Iran continues to procure parts clandestinely.

Iran claims to be working on building an equivalent missile.

General Information
Developed by USA
Deployed by USA, Iran
Development Year 1962
Deployment Year 1974
Platform F-14 Tomcat(6 missiles)
Number manufactured 3,124(all version)
Number deployed about 2,500(54A), about 2,000(54C)
Contractor Hughes Missile Systems, Raytheon(second source)

Dimensions and Performance
Length 4.01m
Body Diameter 38.1cm
Wing/Fin span 92.4cm
Launch Weight 443kg(54A), 463kg(54C)
Range 200km
Speed Mach 5.0+
Altitude 30,000m

Propulsion solid propellant
Engine Mk47;WPU-3/B(AIM-54A), Mk60(AIM-54C)
Warhead 60kg HE continuous rod
Guidance updated semi-active radar, active radar(54A), updated semi-active radar/inertia, active radar(54C)

End notes